’Chapel/Chapter’ mixes holy with disturbing

On Saturday night, the Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Dance Company shocked a nearly sold-out crowd at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance with a performance as draining emotionally for the audience as it was physically for the dancers. Chapel/Chapter incorporated narration, music and dance into an original 60-minute production that was both thought-provoking and unsettling.

Chapel/Chapter exuded a holy quality. The set, which consisted of a large display screen of a black and white altar and flying red butterfly, was complemented by a vocalist who entered the stage reverently singing.

As the audience shuffled to their seats, the dancers were already walking around blindly, being guided by other company members who prevented them from walking off stage or into audience members who were seated on stage.

Against a number of sacred effects – a projected image of an altar served as a backdrop, and a vocalist sang hymn-like syllables – the performance visually recreated four deaths based on true stories taken from a dancer’s personal experience or the news media. The juxtaposition of spirituality throughout the intimate and serious narration in direct conflict with the morbid subject matter created a dissonant commentary on religiosity.

The stories included the memory of a boy at summer camp who watched his friend drown and a detailed fight scene depicting a murderer who fought and killed members of a family. Other dances illustrated the narration of a father who abused and killed his troubled daughter and the story of a Marine’s death. Parts of each narrative were repeated and intertwined throughout the show, allowing the stories to echo and create an intense atmosphere with deep emotional reverberations.

The constant presence of religious imagery was accompanied by symbols of childhood, like the sounds of words being spelled, children singing and occasionally playful atmospheres. The childlike innocence contrasted against the heinous sin of murder effectively produced discomfort.

Although technical choices were simple, the design of set, costumes and lighting emphasized a focus on the evocative narration and the strong dancing. Abrupt changes in lighting and music – a dark, heavy metal riff would immediately transition into lively jazz – enhanced the dancers’ movements. The dancers depicting murderers donned the orange jumpsuits of prisons so that they were immediately distinguished from the rest of the company, who wore mellow blues and browns.

Inspired by the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” the company developed Chapel/Chapter in 12 weeks intermittently over a nine-month period. Choreographer Bill T. Jones and his company created many impressive movement phrases compiled into a unique and unsettling contemporary performance. One such innovative technique the dancers employed was incorporating unnatural movements; dancers imagined an alphabet on the floor or walls and spelled sentences with one body part.

Janet Wong, the associate artistic director of the piece, elaborated in the question and answer session after the show on the reasoning for this choreography technique: “Our bodies move in clichés and the way that feels comfortable,” Wong said. “We tried to subvert our tendencies and create some strange and awkward movement phrases.”

By incorporating bits of classical style into new movements, the performance was not all bizarre and new. Completely committing to all of their movements, the dancers expressively exhibited strength and zeal. While most of the performance featured only one or two dancers at a time, the portions that included the whole company were meticulous and exciting; the fight scene between the family and their killer was a powerful demonstration of group dance.

Although the emotional intensity of the story sometimes slowed the pace of the strong dances, Chapel/Chapter was overall a strong performance that emotionally impacted its viewers and left some feeling completely disturbed, others enlightened. The company’s ability to evoke such a wide range of emotions in audiences through a synthesis of narration, music and movements reflects their unique ability to infuse innovation into modern dance.

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